WHAT WENT WRONG: THE THEOLOGY OF FRIEDRICH SCHLEIERMACHER

Introduction

Have you ever stopped and considered how you view the Bible? No, then take a moment and do so. Now, did you tell yourself that it is the inspired word of God, or is a bunch of stories that people use to make them feel better about themselves? What you think of the Bible will determine, how you think of God. During the Enlightenment and the early part of the eighteenth century, the way people understood the Bible became a big deal.

Ever since the first several centuries after Christianity’s star began to rise, there has been controversy over the Scriptures themselves, especially about what should be considered as Scripture. However, it would be during the eighteenth century that Kant and others like him would begin to deny validity of the Bible and its need in our lives. Kant basically believed that since we cannot see God we cannot trust that he exists, and in the end all we can do is try to lead good lives.

During the early to mid-nineteenth century there was a German man named Friedrich Schleiermacher, who while trying to do a noble thing would end up tearing a hole in the heart of the gospel. He would attempt to reconcile science and religion to one another without ever staying true to either side of his argument. Hodge in his systematic theology says, “The supernaturalists, who believed in the Bible, charged him with substituting the conclusions of his own philosophy for the dictates of Christian consciousness. And the philosophers said he was true neither to his philosophy nor to his religion. He changed from one ground to the other just as it suited his purpose.”[1] This essay hopes to take a look at the man and his theology and see where he happened to go wrong.

The Man

While most homes in today’s society seem to lack any religious influence, this was not the case prior to and even somewhat after the Enlightenment period. This is the time when Friedrich Schleiermacher was born; while there is no exact date we are told he was born in 1768. Schleiermacher was, “a native of Breslau in Silesia, he was the son of a Reformed army chaplain, and, after his parents’ conversion to the *Herrnhuter Brethren, was educated at their college at Niesky and their seminary at Barby.” [2] By him being the son of a Reformed chaplain, we can assume that he had a very strong theology instilled into him from a rather early age. Gonzalez points out that: “Although Schleiermacher was Reformed, Moravian Pietism did leave its mark on his theology.” [3] While he was a student at the university he was introduced and became very interested in the arguments of Immanuel Kant.

When he was close to thirty years old he left his job as a tutor and an assistant pastor with his uncle to go to Berlin and become the chaplain of Charity Hospital there. During this time he was struggling with his own understanding and was starting to feel torn between theology and philosophy. It would be during this time that the insights of the Romantics would help him find his own voice from the debacle the rationalism had created.[4] Shortly thereafter in 1799 he would go onto write his famous On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. For a time Friedrich was an assistant professor at the University of Halle, during his time there he would write several different works; one on Plato would be influential for years to come. His time at the university would be overshadowed the Napoleonic Wars and the French invasions. In 1809 he returned to Berlin where he “…was a professor of theology and also minister of the Trinity Church. The church itself was an early venture in ecumenical relations. It was shared by the Reformed and Lutheran churches, which the king of Prussia was anxious to bring together as an instrument of unification and renewal. Schleiermacher represented the Reformed Church.” [5]

In 1821 he wrote his most influential work, The Christian Faith as an attempt to write a systematic theology for both of the churches. It would be this work that would epitomize the last days of his life. After learning about the man, its time to examine his theology and see what went wrong.

His Theology

Throughout most of his life his theology was constantly evolving because he felt the need to “…bring together the academic world, the church, the state, and family life.”[6] Over time Schleiermacher’s focus would become less of what the Bible had to say and more about feelings. Gonzalez points out,

“His main argument was that religion is not a form of knowledge, as both the rationalist and orthodox believed. Nor is it a system of morality, as Kant implied. Religion is grounded neither in pure nor in practical or moral reason, but rather in Gefühl—a German word that is best translated, although not quite accurately, as feeling. The Speeches did not clarify the content of such feeling, and Schleiermacher undertook that task in his more mature work, The Christian Faith. There he clearly shows that this is not a sentimental feeling, nor a passing emotion or a sudden experience, but is rather the profound awareness of the existence of the One on whom all existence depends—both ours and that of the world around us.”[7]

Schleiermacher’s ideas at the time were not making a huge impact but later in the nineteenth century and even until modern times he has found a following. While most historians give us a glimpse into his theology, Charles Hodge in his systematic theology has a whole section dedicated to Schleiermacher’s theology (especially his Christology and Anthropology). His teaching on feeling is most well known, but what makes his teaching even more dangerous is his denial of the Trinity, and his teaching on the person and work of Christ. During this time most churches were using creeds and other things to affirm what they believed, and heresies were departures from these affirmations; but the doctrine of the two natures in Christ, and three persons in God, he believed to be misleading, and the resurrection, ascension and return in judgment inessential.[8]

It is a sad state when a man who claims to follow Jesus denies all of the aspects of what makes up the doctrines of Christian faith. Hodge states, “The first objection to Schleiermacher’s theory is that it is not and does not pretend to be Biblical. It is not founded upon the objective teachings of the Word of God. It assumes, indeed, that the religious experience of the Apostles and early Christians was substantially the same, and therefore involved the same truths, as the experience of Christians of the present day.” [9] In the end Schleiermacher felt he was doing something important and powerful for the kingdom of God, while in reality he

“… greatly influenced Christianity through three major achievements. First, he made religion socially acceptable to those who no longer took the Bible and its doctrines seriously by showing its appeal to man’s aesthetic tendencies. Second, he attracted to theology countless young men who were interested in religion primarily as an expression of man’s imaginative spirit. And third, for a time he changed biblical criticism from historical to literary analysis.”[10]

Conclusion

It would be his so called achievements that would lead him to being known as “The Father of Liberal Theology”. It would be his theology that would influence the likes of Ritschl and Kierkegaard, he would find some of his greatest challengers “in the twentieth century, Karl Barth and Emil Brunner voiced the criticism of many when they pointed out that Schleiermacher’s theology, being man–centered, neglected the revelation of God in his Word.”[11]

When we stop taking the Bible as our greatest authority and place our own feelings in its place we deny our need for God. Also, by denying who Christ is and his atoning work we basically tell others and ourselves that we are capable of redeeming our own souls. As long as we hold the Bible in great respect and trust that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [17] that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

As Christians the ultimate goal is to live a life according to what Scripture teaches while also surrendering to the Holy Spirit. In all things come back to the Bible and if you must choose between a feeling and what Scripture teaches, go with Scripture and you will never go wrong.

Bibliography

Brown, C. “Schleiermacher, Friedrich Ernst Daniel”. In Who’s Who in Christian History. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992.

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Eckman, James P. Exploring Church History. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2002.

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianty Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.

Geisler, Norman L. and William E. Nix. A General Introduction to the Bible. Rev. and expanded. Chicago: Moody Press, 1996.

Hill, Jonathan. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Hodge, Charles. Systematic Theology. Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.

Johnson, Paul. A History of Christianity. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Nashville: Nelson, 1995.


[1] Charles Hodge, vol. 2, Systematic Theology (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 443.

[2] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd ed. rev. (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1474.

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianty Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day. (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010) 389.

[4] Ibid, 389

[5] C. Brown, “Schleiermacher, Friedrich Ernst Daniel” In , in Who’s Who in Christian History, ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 611.

[6] Ibid, 611.

[7] Gonzalez, Story, 389.

[8]Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1976) 375.

[9] Hodge, vol. 2, Systematic, 443.

[10] Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, Rev. and expanded. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996), 143.

[11] Brown, Who’s Who, 612.

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